Burma Diary – Part 6

U Win Nyein is a gentle, soft spoken man in his sixties. I meet him in his office in downtown Yangon. It is on the first floor of an old rundown building. Through the open windows we hear the sounds of the street: the chatting in the tea house next door, the voices of children playing, a few cars.

The room is full of books, magazines, newspapers, they are all spread out on chairs, tables and desks. U Win Nyein is editor in chief of Burma’s leading literary journal. He proudly shows me the latest issue. On the cover are a famous Burmese actress and an actor. There are many stories about movies and singers. In a sixteen-part series, they publish a biography of Angelina Jolie which he translates into Burmese. In the second part of the magazine, there are many short stories by Burmese writers. “We have a lot of young readers, they are crazy about entertainment stories. Those articles are the sugar coating for the literature we publish,” he says with a big smile.

These are exciting times for publishers in Burma. “Before, we had to submit every issue to the censors and ask for permission to print.” U Win Nyein says. “Now we can publish and submit afterwards. If we publish something against the law, we receive a warning. If we do it again, we lose our license.” It is not quite freedom of the press, not yet, but it is a big change for a country that used to have incredibly strict censorship laws. There are more than 200 magazines and journals in the country now; more than 50 have launched within the last few months. The head of the censorship office talks openly about abolishing it altogether.

I give U Win Nyein a copy of The Art of Hearing Heartbeats. He likes the cover and the story. I tell him I would like to have it published in Burmese. He nods. Burmese are passionate readers. You see them reading while waiting for buses. Sitting on the street, in stalls waiting for customers. In their offices.

But that is changing, U Win Nyein says. “There is so much entertainment available. Video games. Computer games. TV. Sports magazines. Twenty years ago a good book could sell fifty thousand copies here. Now it is more likely to sell five thousand.” For authors it is difficult to make a living. They only receive royalties for the first thousand copies.

Burma Diary – Part 5

There are a few things a visitor will notice right away when he arrives in Kalaw. First will be the beautiful surroundings. The town is set in the Hills of the Shan States, roughly 4,500 feet above sea level. There are wonderful old mansions and villas, leftovers from the time when Burma was part of the British Empire. Some are built in the Tudor style, while others look like houses in the Scottish Highlands. A visitor will also notice: The local headquarters of the NLD, the party of Aung San Suu Kyi. It is right on the main road, decorated with her party flag and posters of her likeness. Still a rather unusual and stunning sight. I am in town for no more than one hour and I am already told that SHE was here—just last week, campaigning for her party’s candidate for the April 1 election. More than eight thousand people came to her rally, half of the population of Kalaw. Nothing compared to her next stop Mandalay: There were almost 200,000, I am told.

Even in this remote town there is excitement in the air like I have never seen. In the tea house there is a calendar with pictures of her. The waitress wears a sticker for the NLD. Just a few months ago, she could have been arrested for this and sent to jail for many years.

Sellers on the market wear t-shirts with images of her. I see the party flag all over town, in teahouses and shops.

Change has many faces. “Real estate prices have skyrocketed,” a friend tells me over a shan noodle soup. “My neighbor just sold a small piece of land for 350,000 US Dollars to a General. The military is laundering its dirty money.” $350,000 for a small piece of land, in a country where a school teacher makes less than a hundred dollars a month? And that General isn’t the only one. There are plenty of new houses in Kalaw, nice, big villas, all owned by military men or their friends. There will be a day when people start asking questions…


I wake up in the middle of the night to the sound of barking dogs. There are many stray dogs in Kalaw, and they tell the story of how corruption works in this country. I lay awake, thinking of the dogs and the expensive houses.

There is a military academy in town, and the headmaster raises dogs. Three hundred officers attend this academy each year, and it is strongly recommended that they each buy a dog from him. The price tag is hefty: one thousand dollars per dog. You do the math.

But what shall the officers do with the dogs? They have no use for them and let them go. That is why there are so many stray dogs in town.


The next day, I walk the streets of Kalaw, visit old friends, spend hours in tea houses listening and chatting. Maung Zhaw tells me about his sister who works in a shoe factory in Yangon. The pay was poor and they went on a strike. They got a raise. Absolutely impossible just a few months ago. “And the press wrote about it,” he says shaking his head as if he cannot believe it himself. “We are allowed to have labor unions now.”

A friend of his works in a restaurant. He tells us how an inspector from the health department came in, checking the hygiene of the kitchen. He asked for a glass of wine and got it. Then he ordered a whole meal, and wanted to leave without paying, just as he always does. This time the owner demanded that he pay like everybody else. The inspector thought he was kidding, but the owner did not back down. “We become less fearful everyday,” Maung Zhaw believes.

Burma Diary – Part 4

I took the night train from Yangon to Mandalay and got off in Thazi. I left at 3pm; the distance is a little more than 300 miles. It takes between thirteen and fifteen hours. It depends on the weather, the ghosts and spirits along the way, and the mood of the driver and the engine.

I was lucky. It only took us 13 hours and 20 minutes.

Sitting in the train I, was reading an old book by an English author, published in 1906. He once took the same train, and it took him the same amount of time. I suppose there aren’t many places on the face of the earth where the speed of a train has not improved in the last 106 years. When I think about it, there is not much more you need to know about the state this country is in.

Having said that, I must admit that I enjoyed the ride. Like I always do. The train moves slowly, often you could walk or ride your bike right next to it. This is the perfect speed for the human senses. All windows are open, you smell all the different smells. You hear the different noises. You feel the change in the temperature in the late evening. You have time to absorb all the various sights and sounds.

The kids playing in the rice paddies. The water buffalo. The women preparing dinner on the open fire. The joyful screams of teenagers taking a bath in a river. The sunset.

After eight hours my back starts to hurt. I cannot sit much longer. It is dark, and there is not much to see despite the full moon.

Before I can start to feel sorry for myself, I walk to the restaurant car through the lower class cars. There people sleep everywhere and in every position imaginable: on the floor, on the wooden benches, underneath, on top of each other. Next to me a mother is sharing two seats with her three children.

When the train stops the stations are full of travelers, sitting on the tracks, chatting, eating, sleeping, waiting for their train, never knowing when it will come, if at all.

After a while I cannot read any more without feeling dizzy. The compartments are shaking like crazy in all directions the whole time. It is like riding a bumper car for 13 hours and 20 minutes. The last three hours after midnight are just an exercise in endurance.

For some reason I am the only foreigner on the train.

By the way: I could have taken a plane. It would have taken one hour. But somehow I find travelling by plane not suitable for Burma. Unless you are in a hurry—and you shouldn’t be. Not here.

Burma Diary – Part 3

When I came down this morning, the hotel lobby was full of nervous business people running around with their mobile phones trying to get reception (they couldn’t) or sitting in front of their computers. What would be a normal sight in most other countries is still unusual here. Now and then I notice a waiter or the concierge looking curiously at what all these strangers are doing.

I went to my favorite book store, Bagan Bookshop, downtown. It is a small place, based in a living room more or less, but they have wonderful books—many of them out-of-pring books about Burma, which the owners have copied them themselves. The late owner used to restore old books, like U Ba does in The Art of Hearing Heartbeats. When I walked in, his son was happy to see me. I noticed books by Aung San Suu Kyi on the shelves, and other critical books. Just a few months ago, the police would have put him in jail for selling them.

"We are open now. Everything is possible," he explains with a vague smile.

I learned long time ago that the Burmese smile can have many different meanings. They smile when they are happy. They smile when they are angry. Embarrassed. Shy. Insecure. His was a cautious smile.

Outside his son was playing soccer, like so many boys do on the side streets of Yangon. I remember watching them carefully negotiate the potholes and the garbage while playing, very often falling and hurting themselves when they stepped in a pothole. They were playing like crazy today, despite the heat. The road was newly paved. (Don’t think I am obsessed with paved roads. It was just a moving sight, seeing them playing so joyfully on this fine street.)

Afterwards I had lunch with some Burmese friends. We were sitting in the shade of a big banyan tree and had an interesting conversation.

One was a pessimist. He said that not much had changed for the ordinary people. There are few new laws that have been implemented. Yes, Aung San Suu Kyi is running for election and will probably be elected. "But let us see how much power she will have in the end. I don’t trust the government. How can I, after what they have done to our country in all these years?" He smiled. It wasn’t a happy smile.

My other friend is very pragmatic. He wants to go into business as fast as possible, but it is very difficult because banks don’t give loans. There is basically no banking system in the country. "We are starting from scratch," he said. "And we don’t have much know-how. There are so many lost generations because the universities were closed for many, many years. We don’t know how to run a country, but we have to try."

The third one was the optimist. He was the youngest of them, full of ideas and hope. "This is what we have been waiting for," he exclaimed. "There is no turning back. We are opening up. Let us use the opportunities." He smiled. I recognized his smile right away. It was wonderful to see such a happy one.

Burma Diary – Part 2

Is this what progress looks like?

We are stuck in a traffic jam. Haven't moved for ten minutes on our way from the Yangon airport to downtown. The whole trip used to take no longer than twenty minutes. The air smells terrible. It is hot and sticky.

"The government has lowered the taxes and tariffs on new cars," my friend explains, as if he had to apologize for the long drive. "There are a lot of cars being imported now."

I nod and think of my first trip to Burma, back in 1995. There were only a handful of cars on the streets back then. Everybody walked or rode a bike. The air was fresh. I tell my friend of my sweet memories.

He laughs. "Yes. You enjoyed it because YOU were sitting in a car. If you had to walk and carry all your luggage all the way from the airport to your hotel you might have felt differently."

He has a good point. I decide to feel happy for all the Burmese who are stuck with me in this early evening rush hour traffic jam.


This morning I went downtown and I have to say, the city feels very different. I walked down 37th Street, 38th, 39th, streets I have walked countless times over the years. I used to carefully navigate the deep and dangerous potholes, the smell of open sewage permeating the air. The same streets are paved now. The sewer is under construction and in a few weeks it will be covered. There are lots of new shops selling books, newspapers and magazines. The new government has lifted censorship, and the press is freer and more open than at any time my Burmese friend can remember. Aung San Suu Kyi, the opposition leader who was under house arrest most of the past 22 years, is everywhere now.  She smiles and waves from magazine covers, billboards, t-shirts. Is all this change real? I can't wait to talk to my friends and hear their opinions in the next couple of days.

I walked for hours. I drank great Burmese tea, strong with a lot of sweetened milk. A man was selling old magazine and newspapers on the sidewalk. He had a stack of New York Times Book Reviews in front of him. They were all from the last century, the top one from September 1990.

He saw my interest.

"You want one," he asked?

"They are kind of old," I replied.

He looked at me, a bit puzzled. "So what? Good books don't get old."

Certain things haven't changed in Burma.